There is a sense that anything can happen in Pakistan now. With the assassination today of Benazir Bhutto—who had increasingly come to symbolize the nation's painful return to democracy—Pakistan is a country that could easily slip into chaos, even civil war. This is no local or regional matter: Pakistan is also a country that, as a harbor for both Islamic extremism and nuclear arms knowhow, today more than ever poses one of the most dangerous threats to America and the West. Washington's strategy for stabilizing Pakistan had depended in great part on Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister whose pleas for democracy were once ignored by the Bush administration, but who in recent months was seen as a key to legitimizing the presidency of autocrat Pervez Musharraf by forming a political coalition with him. Bhutto was considering the idea, but she had grown increasingly leery of Musharraf, accusing him in recent weeks of failing to stop the spread of Islamic militancy. Now all those hopes are gone. "This is the darkest, gloomiest day in the history of Pakistan," Bhutto's onetime rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said at the hospital in Rawalpindi today, as he visited her body and asked her supporters for calm. "The unthinkable has happened."
Tragically, however, the assassination of the 54-year-old Bhutto was all too thinkable—indeed, it was expected by the victim herself. Upon her return to Pakistan last October after eight years in exile, Bhutto had written a letter to Musharraf—and saw to it that it was hand-delivered—warning him that if she were killed he should investigate certain officials in his government. Bhutto and her top security officials had complained repeatedly about the lax security provided by Musharraf's government. In recent days, as she stepped out for political rallies more and more ahead of the scheduled Jan. 8 national elections, her aides had warned that the jammers supplied to them by the government—intended to stop remote-controlled bomb devices—weren't working properly.
Whoever was to blame for the assassination, the focal point of the outrage at the moment seems to be Musharraf himself—and, by extension, the Bush administration, which has supplied him with about $1 billion a year in an increasingly controversial aid program. "Musharraf, you dog," Bhutto supporters chanted as rioting broke out throughout the country, including the capital of Islamabad and in Karachi and Lahore, where shops were torched. As unrest spread, the military was called into rural areas of Sindh to control the rioting, aiports were closed, and rail services were suspended.
Democracy advocates in Pakistan say that Musharraf, while nominally remaining an ally of the United States and the West in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, has spent most of his energy and resources on keeping himself in power since he ousted Sharif in a coup eight years ago. "The problem with Gen. Musharraf is that instead of clamping down against terrorists he has been more strict on civil rights activists," says Syed Farooq Hasnat, a scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute and a former political scientist at the University of the Punjab, in Lahore. "Unfortunately Bhutto became a victim of this."
The painful irony for the U.S. government and other nations that have supported Musharraf is that while he bears most of the blame from the public, he is also the only person standing between violent chaos and order at the moment. The new Army chief of staff, Ashfaq Kiyani, has signaled a desire to keep the mililitary out of politics. U.S. officials are hoping that Musharraf doesn't reimpose the state of emergency that he lifted earlier this month, even though they know it will be difficult, if not impossible, to go forward with the Jan. 8 elections. But Washington has no choice but to back Musharraf now, once again, even as it seeks to support other prominent politicians, such as Sharif (though he is mistrusted by Washington as a religious conservative). "Elections don't seem possible at the moment," said Hasnat. But he added that Pakistan's terrible paradox is that only elections and democracy could point the way out of chaos. "The whole problem is suspension of political activities in general"—even in the Northwest Tribal Areas, where Al Qaeda has found a harbor, Hasnat said. "The best course of action would have been to have a political process in Pakistan where these tribal areas could have been included in mainstream activities. Just sending in helicopter gunships and army and killing civilians in the process hasn't worked."
In the end, Benazir Bhutto could become in death the kind of hero for democracy in Pakistan that she never quite became in life. Dogged by allegations of corruption against her husband and her family, she never achieved the popularity that Sharif did in some quarters. But in recent months, as she readied her political comeback, she had shown consummate courage and presence of mind in stating the issues clearly. "We have started a process where we could bring the moderate forces together for the holding of free and fair elections," she told NEWSWEEK in an interview last summer. As she said later, upon her return, "The terrorists are trying to take over my country, and we have to stop them." Left unsaid—out of political sensitivities—was her belief that Musharraf himself was responsible for permitting the rise of extremism by banning secular alternatives like her party from participating in elections.
"She was a woman of extraordinary courage who returned to Pakistan in the face of death threats. And even after an assassination attempt the day of her return, she did not flinch," Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said today in a statement. "Her assassination makes it all the more urgent that Pakistan return to a democratic path."
The question now is how—with one of democracy's most prominent and popular champions dead.